Self-publishing vs traditional publishing: time, money, and creative control

Time and MoneyTwo of the biggest lures for self-publishing are its speed (Just do it! Let’s get it out there!) and its high royalties. Traditional publishing has its own lure, apart from that stamp of quality: someone else doing all that stuff for you. Then there’s the issue of creative control – which is always, by definition, a personal and even emotional decision.

The self-publishing wins

Self-publishing is faster. Traditional publishers usually have publishing schedules, a set plan of how many books they’ll bring out and when. Even if your book’s ready to go, it may still have to wait its turn in the publishing schedule. A year’s delay from a book’s acceptance to its publication is normal. And that’s not counting the time it takes to submit your proposal to agents or publishers and get it accepted – replies can take six weeks, three months, even six months for some. As ebooks and self-publishing increase, some of the big publishing houses are recognising they have to speed it up to compete. Not all that time is actually “delay” though: we’ve already looked at how quality takes time.  You can get there faster with self-publishing, but don’t sacrifice quality to speed. You need to allow some time for the process, but less than a year!

Self-publishing royalties are also incredibly attractive: they average between 35% and 70%. Compared to the 10-12% of cover price that publishing houses offer, that’s dazzling. If making money is an important part of your book’s purpose, the royalties might decide you. Even if you sell far fewer books, you can still make more on royalties. If making money isn’t so important and you want to give lots of copies away, self-publishing still wins: you’ll pay cost-price for those copies, which is cheaper than buying your book from the traditional publisher at author discount.  When you look at the difference in those royalties, though, don’t forget to include the capital you’ll invest if you self-publish.

Self-publishing: your time and costs

The catch with self-publishing is that you make the up-front investment, in time and money.  Before you decide how much faster you can do it, how much more money you can make, map out the timeline and the costs.  This is what you need to include:

  • reviews (at least 2), editing, proofreading
  • layout design, cover design
  • self-publishing fee
  • marketing costs
  • your time as project manager

The costs for reviews, editing, proofreading, layout, and cover design will vary widely: you get what you pay for.  For the timing, allow 3 months for reviews, editing and proofreading. (This includes your time to make changes and do rewrites as well.) For the layout and cover, allow a month total.  All of these go faster if you book your people in advance.

The self-publishing fee and timeline should be clear on the company’s website – but beware of “as fast as…!” marketing that gives their best ever speed instead of the average time!  On average, it should be a couple of months. That’s 6 months so far – I’d add an extra month as cushioning. For your marketing costs and time as project manager, work it out as you would for any new project launch.

You can streamline this timing: book everyone in advance, book your own time for rewrites and changes, start the cover alongside the edits, brief people clearly and answer questions fast, have the layout person on standby as the precisely scheduled proofread copy rolls out into their hands.  It can be done faster – but six months is realistic.

Traditional publishing: the time and money they give you

Traditional publishers give you an advance: a lump sum which you’ll slowly pay off with royalties.  When you’ve earned enough royalties to cover that, your book has “earned out” and you start receiving royalties.  If your book never earns out, you still keep the advance. Instead of you making an up-front investment, they make the investment – and you get the money.

They also give you time. All those processes and that project management go to them. You may still need to do some rewrites and make some changes, but the rest is in their hands. How much money could you be earning in your business with that time?

You will need to invest some time at the start – to write a kick-ass proposal and to submit it to every suitable agent and publisher you can find. But once it’s picked up, they pick you up and carry you.

Creative control: the final factor

Someone else takes over everything: does that fill you with dread or with relief?  The need for creative control is emotional, so allow your emotions some speaking room here. If you feel dread, think hard about self-publishing and vet any traditional publisher carefully. If you feel relief, traditional publishing may be your first call. You can still self-publish, of course, but then think about getting structured support. You might want a project manager to oversee the process. Or you might just need a reliable train of experienced people, from reviewing editor onwards, who will guide you through and pass you onto quality, trusted people for each next stage.


How much creative control do you want or need? How much investment can you make? What’s your timescale?

3 thoughts on “Self-publishing vs traditional publishing: time, money, and creative control

  1. Another great article Megan! I’m starting to be a fan of yours. :-)
    Ever since I started reading your article, there are only two words glued in my mind – CREATIVE CONTROL. That is one of the reasons why I prefer self-publishing over the traditional ones. I don’t want to change how my book ends, or some chapters need to be changed, etc, etc… I want my book to start and end the way that I perceive and imagine it to be. No more, no less. I strongly believed that when the book that I wrote is interesting enough to the public, then eventually traditional publishers will pick it up after self-publishing it.

    (If this appears to be a second duplicate comment, please delete either one of them as I have accidentally hit “post comment” twice. :D )

    • Thanks, Selfpub – I’m here every Monday ;) I read a fantastic line in a David Mitchell article the other day: “I spend a lot of pub time railing against all the occasions when creative control is wrested from the people who have the ideas by the people who keep the accounts.” Yes – when you feel like your idea might be compromised beyond recognition, it’s fabulous to have the option of complete self-management.

  2. I have subscribed to your blog. :-)
    Hope you share your thoughts more about self-publishing a book and also on article/content/blog editing. That’s one thing I am not so confident with – content editing. Again, thank you so much for all the information you have shared to us all.

    (P.S. – I’ll wait for your guide post on quick content editing. lol)

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